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Roundtable: SDSU's President Faces Challenges

Roundtable: SDSU's President Faces Challenges
Families sending a son or daughter to San Diego State University next year will have to pay considerably more than this year.

Families sending a son or daughter to San Diego State University next year will have to pay considerably more than this year. California's system of higher education, which was designed to maintain high academic standards and remain accessible to low income students, is hiking its fees substantially. At the same time, the Board of Trustees announced this week they agreed to a contract with the new president of SDSU, Elliot Hirshman that pays him a salary $100 thousand higher than his predecessor's.

Guests: Dean Calbreath, economics reporter, San Diego Union Tribune

Kyla Calvert, education reporter, KPBS News


David Rolland, editor, San Diego CityBeat

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: And you're back at the KPBS Roundtable. I'm Alison St. John. Here with me today we have Kyla Calvert, who's the education reporter of KPBS news. David Rolland, editor of San Diego City beat, and Dean Calbreath, economics reporter of the San Diego Union Tribune. And we are also happy when you join the Roundtable here at 1-888-895-5727. Families sending a son or daughter to San Diego state university next year will have to pay considerably more than last year. California's system of higher education which was designed to maintain high economic standards and remain accessible to low income student system hiking its fees substantially. At the same time, the board of trustees announced this week that they agreed to a new contract with the new president of SDSU, Elliot Hirschman, that pays him a salary $100,000 hire than his predecessors. How are you dealing with the hike? What's your reaction to the board's decision to boost the president's salary so substantially at the same time? 1-888-895-5727 is our number here. Kyla, start us off with the specifics. How much are the fees gonna go up?

CALVERT: This week, the board of trustees voted to raise tuition by 12% this fall. So at San Diego state, two semesters or one year of school, students will be paying more than $6,500 for the year. And that's up -- I did the math a little earlier this week, and I think that's up -- it's almost double from four years ago, what they were paying in the fall of 2007.

CAVANAUGH: And what's the fallout from such a large fee increase going to be, do you think?

CALVERT: Well, I think that the students in general are just feeling squeezed. Of and in general, they said that about a third of the revenue from tuition is held and reserved for financial aid. So they tried to sort of buffer lower income families from that increase. But I think we've seen more and more, especially locally, more people trying to get their first two years of college done at the community colleges because it's cheaper, and that creates a squeeze there as well.


CAVANAUGH: How much was the budget cut this year? The state budget cut.

CALVERT: The system lost $650†million from the state, and if the state doesn't have as revenue -- if revenue doesn't come in as high as the legislature has estimated it will, they could fate mother hundred million in cuts at the end of the school year.

CAVANAUGH: The new president doesn't seem to be surfing from these budget cuts. What is his contract?

CALVERT: He will be getting an annual salary of $400,000 a year. Steven weber before him had a salary of about $300,000. They both get housing from the university, and a thousand dollar monthly car allowance.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I understand that even Governor Brown has written a letter to the board of trustees saying perhaps the timing of this sends the wrong message. Has Elliot herb man had a response at all to this controversy?

CALVERT: Earlier today he spoke with our KPBS were the are, Amita Sharma, and she asked him in the face of these cuts and in the face of losing instructors, how he felt about earning $400,000 a year. And here's what he told her.

NEW SPEAKER: This was a fairly complicated situation that the offer that was made to me preceded the cuts that came down, and some of the effects that you're discussing. What he's going to do is queen a committee of the board to examine the processes for presidential services compensation. And I think that's an appropriate thing to do. And I'm very supportive of that approach.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. That's Elliot herb man who is the new president of SDSU speaking about this question about his salary. And he's referred to a he. Who's he referring to?

CALVERT: He's referring to Herbert Carter, who's the chair of the board of trustees. And what you -- you mentioned that governor Jerry Brown sent a letter to the trustees saying now may not be the time to allow this salary hike. So in response to that, Herbert Carter has created a committee that will review the executive search and compensation process that the system uses.

CAVANAUGH: So David, everyone's on vacation right now. There's nobody on campus to react to this. Do you think that this investigation into salaries is going to be enough to really explain this kind of anomaly or this contribution as it were to student when is they come back?

ROLLAND: I would hope not. I would hope they raise bloody hell over this. His response was appalling. Like, was he saying that we didn't -- one thing proceeded the other and the budget cuts came -- it was just a timing issue. Oh, really? You didn't know that the state was in serious trouble? You didn't know that the state budget has been cut basically 40% over the last three years? You didn't know that that might have an effect on higher education, on public education in this state? That's appalling. This guy needs to -- all he needs to say is oh, okay, well, there was a tine timing issue. So now I'll just give some of that money back.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, dean, what do you think? He will be earning twice as much as the U.S. Supreme Court justice, more than the governor, much more than the mayor of San Diego or any city manager. How does the board of trustees justify this salary?

CALBREATH: I don't know how it can. I agree totally that this has been a long running problem. It shouldn't have been a surprise to anybody. We have had the university tell people oh, you gotta go to community college 'cause we don't have enough space for you. And yet we're going to pay this guy more than -- Steven weber was a very well respected person with a long tie to this community. You can argue that he was being paid too high. But with his long length of service, he sort of moved himself up. Yet we're paying this guy who's just coming in much more than weber was getting. It doesn't make sense to me, frankly.

CAVANAUGH: 1-888-895-5727 is the number to join the Roundtable. Kyla, did you want it make a comment?

CALVERT: I think also the point about the timing issue, this is not the first year that the system has seen cuts. Executive pay hasn't been increased in the system since 2007, and I -- Herbert Carter made a comment during their meeting that in one of those years they reduced pay by about 10%. So I think that the point about -- the cuttings didn't exactly come out of the blue is a fair one.

ROLLAND: If he really didn't see this coming, he should be fired for being an idiot.

CAVANAUGH: 16,000 of the $400,000 salary is coming from the foundation, and the head of the SDSU foundation says he believes the president will make up for this and more with his fund raising skills. As public universities have to rely more and more on private fundraising, does that justify you think escalating the salary that much?

CALBREATH: If he's going to make that much, why not just pay him a% annual of what he brings in and lower his salary?

CAVANAUGH: That would be your suggestion. We have a call from Raul in Bonita. Go ahead, Raul. Thanks for joining the Roundtable.

NEW SPEAKER: I'm not interested in the salary, there are some real issues there, but what I'm concerned about is the lack of outcry when we were setting the salaries for the football coaches and the baseball coaches. Those salaries can be as much as a million dollars. And this is the CEO of the large organization that includes athletics, and I'm concerned about a public university having salaries close there a million dollars for anybody. Secondly, I do want to comment that I think we're going in the wrong direction when we have the privatization of the university. A salary that's paid by the foundation or by nonstate funds begins a kind of decomposition of the role of a public university because we don't have the taxpayers, the owners of the institution paying the full salary. And I think the issue needs to be explored and it needs to be examined because we are beginning to lose control of our public institutions.

CAVANAUGH: Raul, thank you so much for the two points. Two very good points. So David, let's take the second one. Do you think the public sector should be setting more of an example by not letting these huge pay disparities become the norm?

ROLLAND: That would be something that I was going to say, if you were gonna ask me to comment on that, I was just going to say that I think he brings up a really, really valid point. I don't know that I'm really prepared to give know opinion on it one way or another without really thinking about it. But I think it's a great point of debate that should happen. And I'm glad he made the point.

CAVANAUGH: Of course, the taxpayer's going to have to be willing to step up to the plate if we're not going to be relying more on the private sector.

ROLLAND: Uh-huh. And I think he makes a good point about the athletics directors too. It all comes down to dollars and cents, if it makes sense that you have a head coach or whatever, an athletic director that results in a ton of money coming into the university that off sets the cost of that person's salary and then some and brings in even more, then fine. It just comes down to a dollars and cents point. But if you're at the same time cutting $650†million from the system and you're raising tuition, then that doesn't fly.

CAVANAUGH: Dean, have you anything to say about this the, the dilemma that that public universities face? You're not going to get an athletics director that's competitive unless you pay the market rate.

CALBREATH: That's true. And I think a lot of their money comes from the inland my association. It forms around sports, and it's something that they can give money to. You do have private sector contributions in other areas as well. The telecom professors are to the biology professors at UCSD, which is why they're paid much higher than a lot of their fellow professors. But this is happening across the board. It's happening in public schools, you're seeing more and more PTAs and everything kicking in money that the state once provided to the extent of pay for pencils or paper or whatever. You are seeing as the state cuts back, more money from the public to step up.

CAVANAUGH: To step up, right. This is the American way and so --

CALBREATH: Well, theoretically -- it's becoming the American way. It hasn't been the American way. The American way and the California way and what made California a great state in the 1960s, the California way was to have cheap education state provided which created the -- you know, created silicon valley, created the great invasions that we have had. And we are now in the process of cutting back.

ST. JOHN: 1-888-895-5727 is our number. Amy from I-5 is calling in. Go ahead.

NEW SPEAKER: My question is, is the salaries for the present comparative to other president debts' salaries, and if so, wouldn't we want to keep the salary at that level in order to have a competitive candidate to take the plot at SDSU?

ST. JOHN: Amy, can you help us out?

CALVERT: That's exactly what the trustees said in response to the governor's letter. They conducted this survey to determine what's competitive, and this is what they determined was competitive. I know that the president of cal poly makes the same amount in terms of money from the state. The contribution to their salary from the state is $350,000. The president at cal poly doesn't receive as large a contribution from a private foundation as herb man will be receiving. And I know that -- I think it was from the UT earlier this week, there was a survey of other public university presidents, and some of them do make more.

ST. JOHN: But he is earning about the same as Marianne fox. Does that surprise you?

CALBREATH: Yeah, it does. Again, everything about the salary surprises me. So yeah.

ST. JOHN: Okay. 1-888-895-5727. Tru is calling us from San Diego. Go ahead with your comment.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi. I don't go to San Diego state personally. My girlfriend does. And we received the letter that told us about the -- the increase and everything. And for her, it'll be about $300 in the next semester. And she makes just enough that she doesn't qualify for financial aid. So it was kind of interesting in the wording of the letter where they said that we're very committed to financial aid. So a third of what we raise from this increase we will funnel into financial aid. Which means that basically my girlfriend who's super strapped, it's expensive to live in San Diego, is paying a hundred dollars more into financial aid that she doesn't qualify. And I believe in fairness of the whole thing. I think over all, financial aid's an amazing thing. But it's just that she's getting sacked even harder when she has no way to get anything out of what she's putting in. It's an interesting quirk. And it just set me off. I was surprised.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that comment. It's becoming the original goal of higher education to make quality higher education accessible to all, is sort of being frayed around the edges right? David it.

ROLLAND: I think Tru basically illustrates how out of touch the board of trustees actually is. These are wealthy people taking care of another wealthy person. They are out of touch of what real people are going through, with students who are low income, as Tru's girlfriend is, trying to scrape by, trying to make enough -- scrape enough money together to get an education, and these people are worried about getting the absolute topnotch, top candidate. It's fine if you want to be competitive in an environment where your university system is flush and you have enough money to do that, to be competitive. Otherwise, you are making a choice to not go a little lower on the list of candidates and --

ST. JOHN: There's no telling us that that would have actually been necessary, whether Elliot Hirschman would have accepted a lower salary.

ROLLAND: That's right. Does he need $400,000 plus free housing plus a car allowance to do this job? Or will somebody do it for less.

ST. JOHN: We have evidence of politicians, and of course this is not a politician, this is an academic leader, foregoing pay raises. But do we have any examples of people saying they would face pay cuts in the face of what's going on in the economy?

CALBREATH: I'm not sure. But I agree with the point that part of it is that you do have these people who are making lots of -- lots of money. When you've got the -- locally when you've got the head of Sempra energy, for instance, having $10†million worth of compensation last year, stocks and his salary, that amount of money could pay for 25 of the presidents of SDSU. So when you've got people who are making a lot of money in the decision making process, this might not seem that egregious, but it definitely seems egregious from the ground looking up.

ST. JOHN: And in the public sector, yes. President weber, as you said, dean, was recognized as a very effective fund raiser. Do you think there's much head room in San Diego for somebody to do better than he did in.

CALBREATH: Yeah, I think -- he did a very, very good job. But yes, I think that there is room for improvement. There's always room for improvement. He did a terrific job.

ST. JOHN: Is San Diego a good place to be raising funds privately?

CALBREATH: These days?

ST. JOHN: Okay. Let's talk about UCSD for a while here, we didn't mention them, but they've always seen some fee increases.

CALVERT: Yesterday, the UC board of regents approved another fee hike for the university of California system that was an almost 10% fee increase. So under grads at UCSD will be paying I think it's $13,225 in mandatory tuition and fees. That's before room and board for the coming year.

ST. JOHN: So it's not just CSU. And before we leave this topic, you were there when Elliot Hirschman of SDSU went on a tour of his first week. What did he say were his main priorities?

CALVERT: Continuing to raise private funds for the university, reaching out to the community, and insuring continued access to and insuring their continued success in the university. The university has made some strides in the last few years with graduation rates, especially for lower income and first generation students know that he met with students in the educational opportunity program, the first day that he was on campus, which are those students from lower income families and who are first generation college students.

ST. JOHN: And the campus has made great strides on that front under president weber. So he has big shoes to fill, but we'll be watching.

ROLLAND: He can get $100,000 really quickly by getting it from his own bank anthem.

ST. JOHN: I guess that's a challenge. We can leave that hanging in the air.

ROLLAND: I challenge him to do so.

ST. JOHN: We can see from the calls coming in that there's two sides to this issue, and some people feel like we do need to provide competitive salaries. We'll see how this plays out. The coming up, the controversy over how to improve one of San Diego's most beloved landmarks. The City Council takes up the issue of Erwin Jacobs' ambitious plan to remove cars from the plaza de Panama in the heart of Balboa Park. That's coming up.